When I Grow Up I Want to be Norman Lear

I don’t think my parents had any idea what would come of showing me Nick @Night. It started off harmless enough with I Love Lucy  and I loved Lucy. My parents got quite the kick out me enjoying television shows from when they were younger, so on it went, The Jeffersons, Maude, M*A*S*H, Three’s Company and the best of it all– All in the Family.   I was in love. I sang along to the theme songs (getting many of the words wrong). I was hooked. I was a weird kid.

I was the only kid I knew who had even heard of All in the Family.  My parents aren’t big television watchers.  So Nick@Night was my first introduction to adult programming.  I related to Archie and Edith, because I saw my own version of Archie and Edith in my grandparents. I found it easy to love them, because I love my grandparents. It was also my first introduction to people laughing at faults that my grandparents possess.  It was my first experience with the idea, that just because they are your family and you love them, they might not always be right about everything. That was an important seed planted by Norman Lear when I was seven, that I am only just starting to fully appreciate at twenty-four.

At seven, I was in love with the situational comedy of the era. To me, Carroll O’Connor and Jeanne Stapleton were magic. The physical comedy of Sherman Hemsley and Isabelle Sanford was perfect. I don’t remember many episodes of Maude vividly (I think she was too liberal for my parents), but in the back of my mind I can hear her say “God’ll get you for that”. Like, Simba or Cinderella, they were characters in my childhood.  I had no idea how daring and new they were for television in their time. Hell, All in the Family is still pretty daring, and just as relevant today as it ever has been. Honestly, there aren’t enough shows like it.

There are people out there who remember where they were when they found out Michael Jackson or Princess Diana died. I remember the moment I found out that Carroll O’Connor had died.  I was nine years old, my parents and I were in a Friendly’s restaurant in Massachusetts. My parents pointed to the television screen where the news was reporting that Carroll O’Connor had passed away. I remember being sad and thinking that I would never get to meet him. I remember the same feeling the same way when I found out that Lucille Ball had died three years before I had been born. Like I said, I was a weird kid.

Growing up I never thought about being a writer or wanting to work in television.  To me, television was this thing that just happened. I had no idea of the scope behind what goes into making a television show. I never for a second thought that it was even a potential career path for me. The people who made TV and movies were some kind of magical, special people who got to do it. As a kid, I thought you had to be born famous or something, that you had to already live in Hollywood. My father has lived down the street from his childhood home for most of his life. When I was a kid, I figured I would do the same, I never had dreams of moving to Los Angeles.  I had no idea that it was something you could go to school and study.

I remember when it clicked, for me that I could do it to.  I was watching the Academy Awards, which even at 16 was a High Holy Day for me. Kate Winslet was accepting her Oscar. She was gushing about how she dreamed of this as a child. She called out to her father and he whistled back. In that moment she seemed so normal to me, she was a real person. At my age, she had been like me. I went into the other room and told my mother that I was going to be a filmmaker.  I had already started generally looking at college and had seen the words “film major” in passing, but thought nothing of it. I decided then, that was what I wanted to do.

In that moment a lot of things about myself made sense. I realized that almost every career I was previously interested in had to do with a television or film character, not with any passion for that career itself. I had even toured Wellesley College because I loved the movie Mona Lisa Smile. Films and TV had such an impact on me and I didn’t even realize it until that moment. I realized that my passion for 70’s and 80’s television wasn’t that strange after all. There was a job and a place for that. I was floored. My mother looked at me and said “okay”. She went back to folding laundry and told me that I had to switch wash into the dryer, which she agreed begrudgingly could be done on the next commercial break.

Later that year, we started touring colleges.  I distinctly remember my dad pulling me aside and asking “How did I end up with you?”.  I was a weird child, apparently it didn’t go away in my teenage years. We flew to Chicago to see a school, which although a great school was too far out of my comfort zone at the time. We came back to Massachusetts and I started my senior year.

My first assignment for english class that year was to write my college essay. I knew immediately what I wanted to write about. I was going to write about my love for 70’s and 80’s television and my desire to become a filmmaker. If you haven’t already picked up on it, I am not a great essay writer. I ramble, I write long run on sentences, I am not a grammar queen, and spell-check saves my life daily. I wrote an impassioned essay about the impact these shows had on me and how I wanted to create television shows and movies. The title of that essay could have been, “I Want to be Norman Lear When I Grow Up”.  I was proud of this essay. After the first draft, my english teacher told me to shelve that essay. She basically said something along the lines of , “It’s great, but it doesn’t say anything about you or what you’ll bring to the table. Write about the missionary trips you took with your church, no one does that” .  The fact that my college essay was about missionary trips makes me want to vomit a little. Every kid writes about the vacation like missionary trips they took with a church group, where they took pictures with underprivileged children and was forced to drink bottled water for two weeks. I was seventeen  and thought she knew best, she was a teacher after all…and I wanted a good grade. I found a school that sounded like my own personal Nirvana and I submitted the essay I worked on with her.

My first Emerson envelope came in the mail and my mom called me to tell me so I would rush home and open it. “Envelope?” I said, “How big is the envelope, letter sized?”. My mother, so excited replied “Yes. When are you going to be home? I want to see you open it”. I took a deep breath and said “I didn’t get in. They send you a big folder sized one when you get in. Just put it on the table and I’ll read it when I get home.” I was wait-listed. I was devastated.

I ended going to an art school with a “Film Program” the next year. It was laughably not for me. By spring semester I was looking online at Emerson’s transfer program and once again filling out the Common App. This time my essay was very to the point. I wish I had saved it.  I told them that I was going to be a filmmaker. I was going to be a writer and that I needed to go there.  In my opinion, it was the only place for me.  I’d like to think it was more eloquent than that, but like I said, I am not a great essay writer. I hit send on the application and printed out the papers that needed to be sent to the school. I then got on the train, rode the green line seven stops and hand delivered my application to the admissions office myself. Then I waited for at least two months.

It was some time later that spring when it happened. I was home from a dreadful first year of college and had been checking the mail box obsessively. I opened the mail box and a big envelope, was stuffed in there with our mail. I pulled it out, threw our mail everywhere and screamed. I drove  up to the house showed my mom. I called my dad in tears of joy. I drove to my boyfriend’s work and told him. I got in. I got in. I got in. I got in.

The weeks and months following consisted of finding my first apartment and going to a mixer for transfer students at Emerson College.  Emerson, like many other colleges loves to tout their alumni. Colleges are the king of name dropping institutions. My mom and I were listening to a speaker talk, behind him was a projection screen. Pictures of alumni, their names and notable achievements flashed by slowly on the screen. That’s when I saw it. “Norman Lear – creator of All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons” .  I pointed it out to my mom. Look! He went here. I’m home. This is where I am supposed to be. I’ve found my people. 

I went on to have three great years there. I read scripts. I wrote scripts.  I made terrible student films.  I took a class called the The Screenwriter in Hollywood by the brilliant Miranda Banks. I fought kids in that class to do projects on Norman Lear. I read her book and desperately wished that he could be a guest speaker. I felt the same thing I felt about Carroll O’Connor, but on a newer deeper level. I needed to meet him. When people say pick 10 people dead or alive to have dinner with, he makes the cut, big time, like top 5 easy.

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A year after graduating college, I moved to Los Angeles. My boyfriend and I packed my car and drove across the country. My only solid requirement for our trip was that we had to see Archie Bunker’s chair at the Smithsonian. He had no idea who Archie Bunker is, but I was as my dad would say, was happier than a pig in shit. He took this photo for me. It happened. It was a big deal for me.

 

 

This weekend, I went to see Norman Lear: Just Another Version of YouI watched the most beautiful biography of a regular guy who went on to become the Godfather of modern television. I giddily watched as Norman Lear himself did a Q&A with the directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. I was easily the youngest person in the theater who didn’t come with a parent. I didn’t care. A guy in the audience raised his hand and told Norman that his eleven year old daughter asks to watch All in the Family all the time. She is my soul sister.

After the Q&A, I went up and shook Norman Lear’s hand. I told him I went to Emerson College. I word vomited some other very nervous phrases at him. I told him it was nice to meet him and he said the same. I then walked out of the theater and called my best friend on the east coast. I left her a voice mail and I cried. It’s funny how someone can have such an impact on your life. In person, he was charming and wonderful, even at almost 94.

When I grow up, I still want to be Norman Lear.

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